We are sorely hindered

On June 20, 2012, I wrote one of my most popular blogposts ever.  It didn’t go viral, like my “Why I’m grieving election day” post, but over the years, “Fear, not Doubt is the opposite for faith” has had a strong, steady readership.  This has become increasingly true over the past few months as average views per day are rising, and I think it may have something to do with Donald Trump and his rhetoric of fear that is resonating with not a few Americans.  I suspect that no matter what I write here, my three year-old post on fear will probably be in the top two for today’s statistics.

What causes tens (maybe even hundreds) of thousands of Americans who claim to be disciples of Jesus and guardians of the Constitution to applaud and cheer when Donald Trump suggests that we put a religious test on anyone who would like to enter this country, in order to keep any new Muslims from entering?  The answer is as simple as it is condemning, we are, as the Collect for Advent 3 puts it, “sorely hindred by our sins.”  This is especially true of our fears.  Fear has caused a great many otherwise faithful disciples to give up the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God loves his whole creation so much that he sent his only Son not to condemn it, but to save every part of it, and instead embrace the false idols of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and hate.

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I don’t use that word, idol, lightly.  It is a bold claim to suggest that others have chosen to walk in sin.  The log in my own eye is huge.  My sins are as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I daily seek forgiveness for them.  I understand that what I am writing is difficult, and yet, as a Priest of the Church, I say it with conviction because I am confident that fear and hate are the antithesis of the Gospel.

This coming Sunday, Advent 3, is known as Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for “rejoice.”  As the initial darkness of the Advent wreath becomes more than half-light, we pause in the midst of all the busyness, all the stress, all the craziness going on all around us and choose to rejoice in the saving love of God.  We hear the words of Paul, calling the disciples in Philippi to give up worry, and with thanksgiving, to make their requests known to God.  Advent 3 is one of the rare times when we don’t pray together from the Psalms, but rather we join in the ancient practice of the Canticles, singing other songs from Scripture, songs that have been sung since the first centuries of the Church.

On this particular Sunday, our song will be a bold claim against fear, first made by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel as the Assyrian army made its slow but steady march toward the south and west:

“Surely, it is God who saves me; * I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, * and he will be my Savior.”

The promise of Isaiah to the people of Israel doesn’t come with closed boarders and anxiety, but in sure faith in the one who created everything that is.  Unfortunately for the people of Israel, they too were sorely hindered by fear, and back-room deals by panicked leaders lead to their destruction.  As people of faith, we have a choice to make in this increasingly important moment.  We can choose to be sorely hindered by our sins, to live in fear, and to make decisions based on maintaining our own self-interests.  Or, we can choose to trust in God, to move beyond our fears, and to reach out in love to all who are lost and hurting.  Simply put, we can choose to love our neighbors, no matter their color or creed.

Choosing love is risky, even scary at times.  It is frightening to give away your extra coat.  It is risky to offer to others the food in your pantry.  We might get taken advantage of.  Under the circumstances, we might even get hurt, but to choose love over fear is to choose the peace that surpasses all understanding, a peace that comes from God alone, a peace that is given as grace, if we could only find it buried beneath the fear in our hearts.

We are sorely hindered by our sins, O Lord, especially our fears.  Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us that we might delight in your loving will and walk in your loving way all the days of our lives.

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A Celebration of New Ministry for Kyle Stillings

 Good afternoon. It is so good to be with you on this day of celebration. My name is Steve Pankey, and I bring greetings from the good people at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, Alabama, where there are still some who are convinced that Kyle Stillings is my long-lost twin brother. This isn’t the first time that I’ve had the privilege of worshiping with the Saint Elisabeth’s community. You may remember my wife, Cassie, and me from such events as: the Baptism of Mose Murray, the Baptism of Abe Murray (also known as the Confirmation of Brad Thompson, happy birthday, Brad), and the Dedication and Consecration of this Church, during which we stood way back there and took in the beauty and excitement of this great space. Having watched this congregation flourish under the leadership of your Eighth Rector, I’m delighted that you have called another one of my friends to be your Ninth Rector because it means that I get to stalk you on Facebook and see the abundant fruit of your life and ministry for years to come. Before I get to the task I’ve been called here to do, let me say a special thank you to Bishop Johnson for approving the Search Committee and Vestry’s wise decision to call Kyle, and for allowing me the opportunity to preach here today.  
 We gather this evening for a rather peculiar service, The Celebration of a New Ministry, or as it is more commonly called, much to my displeasure, The Installation of a Rector. There is a strong tendency to make this service all about the priest, but I’d like to challenge us to do better: to refrain from calling this an Installation service and to focus instead on it being a true Celebration of a new thing happening at St. E.’s, for the City of Bartlett, and for the entire Diocese of West Tennessee. This is easier said than done, of course, as even the specific liturgical acts we do tonight are strangely oriented around Kyle and all the things he has been called to do as your Rector, but the truth is that this service really isn’t about him at all. As he noted on the phone with me earlier this week, He doesn’t even get to do his normal priestly activities tonight. He’s not preaching, that’s my job, and he won’t be celebrating the Eucharist, the Bishop does that. Sure, he’s been duly Instituted, and in a few moments you’ll Induct him by the giving of various symbolic gifts, but in the same way that Christmas isn’t about you, even though you might get a bunch of presents, this Celebration is about something much larger than a tall guy with a red beard. This Celebration of New Ministry is about how the Kingdom of God will be brought forth through the work of everyone who calls Saint Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church home. We’re here tonight to make incarnate the prayer of Moses, “Would that… the LORD would put his spirit on all his people!”

 I understand that y’all have taken on the practice of reading through the Bible this year, and don’t want to spoil the Book of Numbers for you, but I promise you, once you get past the various censuses and rules that make up the first seven or eight chapters, it really does get interesting. So come mid-to-late March, when you feel yourself getting bogged down, stick with it, you won’t be sorry. Our Old Testament lesson picks up two years after the Exodus, and finally, the Hebrew people have broken camp at the base of Mount Sinai en route to Canaan, the land that had been promised to their ancestor Abraham. Every morning they wake up, collect their manna for the day, and walk. Every. Single. Day. As you might imagine, this sort of routine begins to wear on the people and they start to complain. Like most complaints, these start small, but they grow. First, someone grumbles in the field picking up manna. Then a few folks complain around the dinner table. There are non-Hebrews in the camp as well. Scriptures calls them the Rabble, and they don’t know about God’s promises so quickly join in and it spreads like a wildfire. Eventually, the complaints build, and they build, and they build until Moses is able to hear weeping and lamentations throughout the camp.

 And so Moses starts to complain, and then God starts to complain, and eventually nobody is happy. “I thought you liked me, God,” Moses says, “So why did you put the burden of this whole people on me? Are they all my children that I should carry them like babies to the Promised Land? If that’s the case, then go ahead and kill me now because I just can’t handle the complaining.” Notice what Moses’ chief complaint is. It isn’t that there’s only been Manna to eat. He isn’t crying out for meat or to go back to Egypt. His problem is that he’s in leadership all by himself. Ministry is a team sport, my friends, please don’t forget that. God didn’t kill Moses. Instead, he decided to give him some help, so 70 elders were chosen to share the responsibility of leadership. As they gathered in the Tent of Meeting, the Lord came down and plucked up a portion of the spirit that he had given Moses and placed it on the seventy who were gathered.  

 I’m not saying that St. E’s is full of complaining, but I do know that y’all have spent the last 18 months or so in the wilderness. Transition is never easy, and I’m certain that anxiety has been very real in this congregation, like it is in every church. There will be a tendency now that you have a shiny new rector to place the full responsibility of leadership on his shoulders. Resist it at all costs. Father knows best might have been a decent television show in the 1950s and 60s, but it is a terrible way to run a church. There are known leaders in this congregation: vergers, former Building and Search Committee members, Vestry members, Daughters of the King and the list goes on and on. As you settle back into the routine of life with a Rector at the helm, don’t forget the good work you did working as a team in the interim.

 God didn’t stop in the Tent of Meeting, however. There were two men back at the camp, Eldad and Meded, who despite not being in the Tent, were gifted with a portion of the spirit as well. The Midrash of the Rabbis is mixed on how to handle Eldad and Medad and why they weren’t in the Tent at the appointed time. There are some who say that instead of picking 70, Moses had selected 72, six from each of the 12 tribes, and then by the drawing of lots eliminated two, so while they had been registered initially, they were not finally selected to go. Other Rabbis suggest that Eldad and Medad were just too humble for such things. “Leadership pursues those who flee from it,” they say, and so God rewarded them. Finally, there is a group of Rabbis who think that Eldad and Medad were never actually on the list. These Rabbis point to early manuscripts that don’t include the fact that Eldad and Meded were registered, and suggest that this was a later addition by a scribe who, like Joshua, couldn’t handle the thought that God wouldn’t work through the proper channels.

 I’m partial to this last idea because I’ve seen the Spirit at work on the fringes again and again. Yes, you’ve selected Kyle as your Rector, and yes, you have lots of great lay leaders already at work in your midst, but the story of Eldad and Medad reminds us to keep our eyes open for where God might be working on the margins. It is on the edges that you will find where God is calling you to go next. Keep our eyes peeled for the Eldads and Medads in your midst.

 My prayer for you this evening is that God would pour out his Spirit on all his people as we celebrate a New Ministry for the community of faith called Saint Elisabeth’s. I thank God for your new Rector and his lovely family; for the leadership that kept this congregation moving toward the Kingdom in the in-between time; and for the new places where you will find God’s Spirit at work in the months and years to come. May God pour out his Spirit upon Saint E’s with abundance and bless you richly in your life and ministry. Amen.

Trust over fear – a sermon

The audio from today is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

I was really tempted this week. Like you, I read the E-Pistle and saw those red numbers. I hate red numbers. I was tempted, badly, to stand up this morning and preach a fire and brimstone stewardship sermon. I really wanted to join generations of preachers in turning the Widow’s Mite story into a story about giving sacrificially, inviting everyone to model the generosity of the poor widow who gave “her whole life” to the mission of the Temple, but I know that’s not really what that story is about. I know that voluntary giving wasn’t a thing in 1st century Palestine and didn’t really become a thing until the early 1900s. I know the widow had no choice but to give away all that she had. I know it is really a story about Jesus’ ongoing frustration with the Temple system; a system that has abused this poor widow into thinking she had to deposit even her last two coins into the Treasury. Preaching the Widow’s Mite as a stewardship sermon makes me no better than the Scribes Jesus condemns for “devouring widows’ houses.” Like everything else, the church always needs more money, and standing here telling a group of widows, pensioners, and generally good folk who are doing their best to make ends meet that they should be giving more might be tempting, but it isn’t the sort of stewardship that I think God has in mind.

Thankfully, there is another option. The Old Testament lesson also features a widow but this widow had a choice to make. Would she choose the fear of scarcity or the God of abundance. So instead of that poor widow in the Temple, let’s instead look at stewardship through the lens of the story of Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath. Times are tough in Israel and the surrounding region. The King of Israel is a man by the name of Ahab, who Scripture tells us, “did more evil in the sight of the Lord than all who came before him.” Ahab was married to a woman named Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon. Sidon was a foreign land to the north of Israel where they didn’t worship YHWH; they worshipped a storm god named Baal instead.

Soon after the wedding, Jezebel convinced Ahab to build altars to Baal in the land God that had promised to Abraham’s offspring. Needless to say, God was not a happy camper, and so he sent a prophet named Elijah to declare to King Ahab God’s displeasure and to announce a drought in the land that could only be quenched by the word of God, not the cult of Baal. Elijah then wisely ran and hid by a small creek where he was fed by ravens and drank his fill from the creek until it dried up. Here’s where our lesson begins with God once again speaking to Elijah, telling him to leave the land of Israel and enter the land of Sidon, the home country of Jezebel and the land of Baal. There, in a city named Zarephath he would find a widow whom God had commanded to feed him.

Just outside of the city’s gates, Elijah stumbled upon a woman gathering sticks. I’m not sure how he knows that this woman is a widow, but he does, and assuming the basic hospitality rights of a stranger in the first century, he asks the woman for a drink. It is then that Elijah seems to remember the promise of God, that a widow would feed him, and so he calls out to her again saying, “BTW, [by the way] would you grab some bread while you’re at it?” At this point, I can’t help but wonder if Elijah had stumbled upon the wrong widow. Maybe the real widow that God had promised is still waiting with a plate full of food for Elijah. Because this widow doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo from God, and she is clearly less than amused at the bold request of this strange Israelite nomad. The sticks she had gathered fell to the ground as she looked at Elijah and said, “Bread?!? Does it look like I have extra bread to just give away? It hasn’t rained for months. Did you see the fields as you walked here? There is no wheat for flour, no olives for oil, not even enough water to drink. I’m here to gather a few sticks so I can build a small fire and bake one last meal for my son and me to eat before we die.”

Elijah, the exiled prophet of YHWH, with conviction that can only come from complete trust in the promises of God, looks right back at her and says four simple words, “Do not be afraid.” That phrase appears quite often in both the Old and New Testaments. It is quite rare, however, for those words to be spoken by a human being. “Do not be afraid” is most often spoken by God or one of the angels. It is a phrase that assumes there is something to be afraid about, but because God is there, fear is not necessary. A severe drought in the land is something to fear, but Elijah knows that the drought is conditional and that God can and will provide daily bread for this widow, her son, and Elijah, if only she will put her trust in YHWH, the God of Israel, instead of Baal, the storm god of Sidon.

It seems to me, this is where the stewardship sermon begins. The kingdom of God is about trusting God over the idol of fear. Elijah has nothing. His little creek has dried up and the ravens have long since abandoned him. The widow has only slightly more, two sticks, a handful of flour and a drop or two of oil. Food supplies are critically low, and fear is in abundance, when God shows up and through his prophet says, “Have no fear.” I worry about money all the time. Like most of you, my family lives paycheck to paycheck. Saint Paul’s lives Sunday to Sunday. Beckwith lives month to month. The diocese and even The Episcopal Church struggle to raise enough money to keep the doors open and ministry happening. I want to be neck deep in fear most of the time, but I know that the God of infinite provision has spoken and said, “Do not be afraid.”

The Widow at Zarephath trusted this foreign God enough to feed Elijah from the little bit she had. I can’t help but wonder if you and I are capable of the same sort of trust, handing over to God our whole lives, every last piece of us, knowing that in return he’ll give us infinitely more than we can ask or imagine? More than our money, more than our time, more than anything else, God desires our trust. That isn’t to say that the giving of our time, talent, and treasure isn’t important. The giving of our resources is the sacramental sign of our trust in God. When we give sacrificially, we show with an outward and visible sign that inwardly in our souls we trust that God has provided everything that is, was, and ever will be. The hard truth is that very few of us trust God in that sort of way, myself included.

Even though my family gives away roughly 11% of our annual income, there are days, and lots of them, that I don’t trust God 100%. Because of my lack of faith, my offering is more pitiful than the widow’s two copper coins which were given fully trusting that the Lord would provide for her. In the end, it isn’t the money that matters to God, but rather, it is what the money symbolizes – our trust in the Lord’s never-ending provision of everything we have. Do we trust God enough to believe him when he says, “Have no fear,” and like the Widow at Zarephath to give the first fruits of our whole lives to the building up of his Kingdom? Will we choose to give up our faith in the idol so scarcity and place our trust fully in the God of abundance? I say to me as much as to you, have no fear, trust in God fully, and he will provide more than we can dare to dream. Amen.

On vacation

Dear Readers,

As much as I want to write everyday, spending time with my family while on vacation is proving a much more valuable use of time. I’ll be back to writing on Monday, July 27th.

Grace and Peace,

Steve+

The Lord is full of compassion… and we are not.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I had the privilege of preaching about forgiveness. As we once again remember the events and lives lost on that most tragic day, my mind can’t help but recall that God’s compassion is incomprehensible.

Draughting Theology

Here is the unedited text of today’s sermon. The audio will be up tomorrow. The text is Matthew 18:21-35 and my life experience in the 10 years since 9/11. The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness… So began our reading of a selected portion of Psalm 103. Truth be told, the Lectionary allows the option to read all of Psalm 103 on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, but it seems to me, that on this day, we should echo the prayer of David by giving particular attention to this ancient creedal statement, The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness. And we should probably rightly finish it by adding, “and we are not.” The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness… and we are not. Which is, for…

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The Source of True Forgiveness

“Tell your sister your sorry.”  I’ve had it said to me.  I’ve said it to my daughters.  And not once in 34 years do I believe that the apology which followed was genuine.  In those circumstances, “I’m sorry,” usually gets spoken with an undercurrent of disdain.  “I’m sorry I have to tell you I’m sorry,” is usually what that means.  I know it.  My kids know it.  And Jesus knew it.

And so, in teaching his disciples about what forgiveness looks like for those who claim residence in the Kingdom of God, Jesus is very clear on from where that forgiveness flows.  “Unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From the cross, Jesus cried out to his heavenly Father that he might forgive his accusers and executioners for they knew not what they were doing.  And I’ll be damned if he didn’t actually mean it.  No lip service of forgiveness.  No disdain underlying his words.  True, honest, forgiveness that, as the picture above suggests, flowed straight from his heart.  It is no coincidence that when Jesus quotes the Shema and gives the Great Commandment to “love the Lord your God” he does so by naming the heart first.  The heart is the source of love and forgiveness and is the most common image for the residence of the Holy Spirit.  The heart is where God dwells within each of us.  True forgiveness flows from the heart because it is within our hearts that we know the fullness of our having been forgiven.  That doesn’t make forgiveness easy, but it certainly makes it genuine, and that is the sort of forgiveness that Jesus calls for.

Why the Church – An Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

This week, the Acts 8 BLOGFORCE begins a three-part challenge, asking the question “Why the church?”  It begins with a 30,000 foot view, then we’ll move closer to earth as ask “Why Anglicanism?” and finally “Why The Episcopal Church?”  If you’d like to join in the fun, you can find out more at the Acts 8 Website

Last week, I wrote a blog post reflecting on the RCL Track 2 lesson for Proper 15A, Isaiah 56:1, 6-8.  I focused my attention on one line from the prophet and used it as the title, “A House of Prayer for All People.”  In it, I pondered, in an America where nearly 1 in 5 professes no formal religious tradition, what role does the Church have in meeting the spiritual needs of the rising Nones?  “How is it then, in the growing post-religious society (at least in the West), are we called to meet the needs of those who are seeking a relationship with God, or as Isaiah puts it those “who join themselves to the LORD” outside of the traditional structures of laws, prophets, holy writ, and ritual?”

A friend and colleague responded via Facebook asking, “Can one truly be spiritual without a religious tradition? I’m not sure…” Which lead to a fairly healthy conversation about how the Church, with all her baggage, differs from tradition, which all its baggage, and community, which seems to be the buzzword of the Millennial Generation.

All of that, to say this.  My answer to “Why the Church?” is quite simply, because I think it is impossible to live the life of faith on our own. Saving the famous St. Augustine quote for someone more bold than myself, I’ll say this, the Church is a “wonderful and sacred mystery” all right, but I love her. The Kingdom of God is, by its very nature, communal.  Formed out of the overflowing love of the Trinity which existed before Creation, we are made to live in community with one our communal God and with one another.  For all her faults and foibles, the Church catholic is the best model for the community of faith that we have.  Ideally,

  • She is a built in support structure for those moments when we feel that even God has abandoned us.  
  • She gives voice to our prayers when all we are capable of is a groan.  
  • She rejoices when we rejoice.  
  • She models for the world the dream of God for the Kingdom.
  • She calls us each to deeper faith and abundant life.

The Church exists because we need her to.  More precisely, if more egocentrically, the Church exists because I need her to.  The reality is that each of us, as disciples of Jesus, needs the Church to make the life of faith the full expression, the abundant life, it is meant to be.